#CarryThatWeight at UMass Amherst

Emma Sulkowicz is a senior visual arts major at Columbia University. Emma claims that on her first day of her sophomore year at Columbia, she was raped.

She, and two other women filed claims against her alleged attacker. The school held a hearing seven months after Emma’s claim and found the man to be “not responsible” for both her alleged rape and those of the other women.

Due to the result of the hearing, Emma and twenty-two other students filed a federal Title IX complaint against Columbia University (as well as Barnard College), stating that these schools mishandled the subject/cases.

As a part of Emma’s senior thesis, she has decided to carry a dorm room mattress with her wherever and whenever she walks around campus. She calls this protest, “Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight”. Emma states that she will carry the mattress until she graduates or her alleged rapist is expelled.

On October 29, the Wednesday before Halloween, a multitude of students joined Emma and helped her carry her mattress around Columbia University’s campus. On that same Wednesday, two groups on our own campus came together in coalition with Emma to #CarryThatWeight. The event was sponsored by CERC (Coalition to End Rape Culture) and MARC (Men Against Rape Culture).

Ann Schilling, a freshman at UMass Amherst, participated in the campaign. Ann informed me that she chose to participate because, “sexual violence and abuse [are] important issues that affect so many lives, and I think it's really powerful to see people all over the country standing together in solidarity with survivors.”

“To me,” she continues, “the movement means that we are supporting people that are often and unjustly silenced and ignored. We are amplifying their voices to hold abusers, and higher education institutions that don't act to keep their students safe, accountable for their actions.”

A common argument against Emma’s thesis/movement is that she is simply looking for her ‘15 minutes of fame.’

When I asked Ann what her opinion on this argument was, she stated, “I don't believe it's a publicity stunt because there is nothing to gain from the widespread publicity except for attention to the issue itself. The point for Emma Sulkowicz was to demonstrate the "weight" she carries and therefore can't ignore, by making that visible. She is pressuring Columbia University (and other schools that don't deal with similar situations) with an overwhelming criticism that they can't ignore.”

I also spoke with Priya Ghosh, who ran this "day of action" on campus. 

1. Why did you choose to participate (or in your case, run) this movement on our campus?

"Emma reported her case with two [other] women who were assaulted by the same assailant, however all three cases were dismissed. During Emma’s hearing, she was re-traumatized in not only having to educate university administrators on the details of rape, but also by watching her assailant give his testimonial on a television throughout the proceedings (Time Magazine). Lengthy and re-traumatizing conduct processes are a barrier to justice for survivors of assault and rape seeking to report their cases.

Two years later, Emma’s rapist continues to attend Columbia without academic sanctions and university administrators assigned to sexual violence cases are still not trained in how to support survivors.

Emma’s performance piece quickly grew into a campus wide, and soon national, movement. On the National Day of Action, Wednesday, October 29th, more than 130 campuses around the country participated in solidarity actions to stand with Emma, raise awareness of sexual violence on college campuses, and demand justice.

Emma chose to carry a dorm mattress because she was assaulted in her residence hall (Carry That Weight). The mattress symbolizes the burden shouldered by survivors; carrying a mattress together shows our commitment as a community to lessen the weight and work to end sexual violence."

2. What does this movement mean to you?

"Sexual violence is a symptom of the rape culture that permeates our society that often goes unnoticed, or is denied. We are all living in a rape culture: an environment in which rape and sexual violence are condoned, trivialized and normalized.

This culture affects all of us negatively, regardless of the identities we claim. Rape culture is pervasive, systemic and manifests itself in many ways. Some examples of rape culture are street harassment and cat-calling, blaming survivors for what happened to them (victim blaming), using derogatory language against women, not believing the stories and experiences of survivors, objectifying bodies in the media and women not feeling safe walking alone at night.

The Coalition to End Rape Culture (CERC) at UMass Amherst envisions a world without sexual violence. CERC is an RSO working to combat rape culture and fight for it’s eradication while simultaneously providing a safe space for survivors and access to local resources, services and support. Every student has a right to feel safe on their campus and in their community, and our goal is to work against not only assault, but also the stigmatization and shaming of assault survivors.

We have to be active participants in putting a stop to the cycle in which sexual violence is perpetuated because it is not localized to UMass. Rape culture affects every person everywhere: people of all races, classes, abilities, gender identities and sexual identities. Although rape culture impacts everyone, it disproportionately affects women, transgender, genderqueer and disabled people."

3. I've heard many people argue that this is all just a publicity stunt. What's your argument to or opinion on that?

"The Carry That Weight action is a campaign designed to give voice and visibility to survivors who have been silenced by institutions of higher education. When 30 students sing chants together like...

'We are the students,

We are united,

Against Sexual Violence,

At UMass'

...we challenge the climate of violence on our campus and build power to address the normalization and acceptance of rape culture.

Our counteraction as a community cannot exist alone; working to end rape culture is a process requiring widespread awareness and deeply transformative work on the campus and institutional level. We are moved by the bravery of Emma and her story, and will continue to carry that weight to end rape culture at UMass."

If you would like to get involved with CERC’s work:

Join their email list: [email protected]

Or check out their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/UMassCERC

Sources: 1, 2

Photo Source: Priya Ghosh